As my great aunt Gladys’s son Kenneth was born in the Imperial Hotel Lithgow in 1911, I’ve always wondered what on earth they were doing there? Perhaps her husband was working on the building of the factory? The other two main industries in Lithgow at the time were the steelworks and coal mining, so it’s impossible to prove one way or the other. Their marriage didn’t last long in any case. She left him after an incident when he reportedly fired a gun! Then married an American and moved to California. Sadly Kenneth was killed in a car accident in Oregon at just 25 years old.
The following is an abbreviated version of the factory’s history borrowed from the Lithgow Small Arms Museum’s website.
The South African Boer War campaign of 1901 highlighted Australia’s isolation from British munitions and armament supplies. The newly federated government was alerted to the possible serious shortages of supply in future conflicts, now that it was responsible for the country’s defence. So the Government resolved to make Australia independent of British munitions and armament supplies, and in 1907 the decision was made to establish a factory for the manufacture of small arms in Australia.
Lithgow was chosen as the site of the new factory as the town was already serviced by road and rail. It had a thriving iron works, coal, and limestone, and was protected by its location in the western foothills of the Blue Mountains. Tenders were called for the supply of a complete plant for the manufacture of small arms and accoutrements. The rifle to be manufactured was the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE), the standard military weapon of British and Empire forces. And despite three other tenders from British companies the American machine tool company Pratt & Whitney at Hartford, Connecticut, was chosen.
The outstanding precision and modern machines of Pratt & Whitney who were not a firearms manufacturing company, but who made machine tools capable of producing any component requiring repetitive precision manufacture, made them a controversial choice. However, they offered the quicker delivery time of 1 year and lower production time and costs.
During a demonstration at Pratt & Whitney a rifle was built in 22 hours and 36.5 minutes under the contract time of 28 man hours per rifle). The Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield took 72 man hours and Birmingham Small Arms Factory 42 man hours.
The factory opened for business on 9 June 1912, but with the sudden onset of WWI in July 1914 the fledgling factory was still not up to its full production potential of 20,000 rifles per year. Only 13,800 were delivered to the Army between July 1913 and July 1914. During the war employment at the factory peaked at just over 1,500 men. Between August 1913 and July 1918 almost 100,000 Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifles and accessories were produced at Lithgow.
Lithgow at the time was unsewered, with dirt roads, and public transport was virtually non-existent. Lithgow's long cold winters led to miserable conditions when added to the huge strain on the town's existing services, and the critical shortage of accommodation. People were living in appalling conditions, small over-crowded, sometimes condemned houses, tents and even crude humpies. And conditions became worse as the war progressed.
Following WWI Lithgow suffered the pain of severe decline as employment was lost from the Factory, the coal mines, steelworks and shale oil works, and employment had reduced to just over 300 men by mid-1922.
Eventually the Government ordered the Factory to copy the expensive imported shearing combs and cutters used in the wool industry and thereby saved Australia's most valuable export industry. The factory began making sophistocated SAF-LOK handcuffs in 1934 and is still making them today.
SMLE rifle production ceased in 1929 and resumed in 1934. From 1937 the Factory had been making around 30,000 SMLE rifles per year. At the outbreak of war in 1939 the demand rose to 100,000 per year, increasing again in early 1941 to 200,000 per year. On top of this was the increased demand for Bren light machine guns and Vickers machine guns, Lithgow being the only manufacturer of the Vickers outside of Britain at this time.
The factory struggled to cope with not only the increase of production for the Australian Army, but also pleas for weapons from Britain and other Commonwealth countries. Following the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 the British Government requested that all available Australian weapons be sent to Britain to replace losses.
By the end of 1942 employment at the Lithgow factory had grown to around 6000 with a further 6000 people employed at the various feeder factories. Once again the services of Lithgow were placed under huge strain. The perennial problem of accommodation in Lithgow meant that some families even camped in tents in the nearby pine forest without water or sanitation. Weekly production of 4000 rifles, 150 Bren guns, and 50 Vickers machine guns was achieved during this period.
As the war effort depleted the pool of available men, women were employed for the first time in large numbers, with many women seconded from other factories. The efforts of the woman workers often exceeded expectations and earned the respect of management. It was sometimes noted that women could do a job better than men. Women barrel setters were so skilled that they earned higher than normal wages.
After WWII the Factory manufactured parts for locomotives and rolling stock. They went on to manufacture other commercial products including: refrigerator and Sunbeam Mixmaster parts, film projector spares, handcuffs, Slazenger golf club heads, and the old turn-handle pencil sharpeners. Lithgow SAF was also both retailer and wholesaler of its own Zircaloy brand open-ended, ring and adjustable spanners, and then in 1950 Pinnock sewing machines entered production. They went on to produce Slazenger sporting rifles, including the famous .22. Although it had spent most of its life trying to survive, the Factory developed a very fine reputation for the quality of its workmanship and the training of its workers.
In 1982 the Army began the search for a new rifle and once again the Factory lived on the promise of regeneration. In December 1985 it was announced that the Factory would be building the new Steyr Assault rifle and Minimi light machine gun.
Copies of Tony Griffith’s books can be found at the museum. Tony also researched and wrote extensively about indigenous WWI veteran Douglas Grant featured in my blog of 5 June.
For more information on the history of the Lithgow SAF check out the Lithgow Small Arms Factory museum and the Lithgow Arms website links below: